I think we can safely say that Viktor Orbán’s trip to Vienna was a failure. The Hungarian prime minister arrived in Vienna with the following proposition: either Austria supports Hungary’s decision to erect a fence or it should allow a free “refugee corridor” from Croatia to Austria. The Austrians didn’t fall for such a bargain and Austrian-Hungarian relations are not one whit better than they were before Orbán’s quick trip to the Austrian capital. Given the failure of his initiative, he will now turn to the members of the Visegrád4 for more ammunition. So, let’s wait until we learn the outcome of talks with his colleagues in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia.
Today I would like to turn to a less weighty issue: the notorious mendacity of Fidesz politicians. Admittedly, politicians all over the world try to deflect politically sensitive questions. But in democratic countries they rarely resort to blatant falsification. Unfortunately, Fidesz politicians frequently do just that. Lately, the number of suspicious stories is multiplying in response to criticism of the Hungarian government’s handling of the refugee crisis. Many of the stories told by government officials and politicians about conditions along the Serb-Hungarian border turned out to be hearsay or, worse, outright concoctions.
Perhaps the most incomprehensible of these recent fabrications came from Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources who in civilian life is a Protestant minister. One would expect him to be truthful. However, the good pastor, while attending an international conference on the persecuted minorities in the Middle East, gave false figures about the number of people from the region to whom the Hungarian government granted citizenship.
According to MTI’s report on the minister’s speech, during 2014 and 2015 1,000 Christian families from Egypt and Iraq, after careful vetting, received Hungarian citizenship. Why haven’t we heard about these families? Because, we were told, the government’s actions were done in secret to safeguard these people’s privacy and to maintain their anonymity.
A few days later Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó elaborated on the same theme. This time he was even more specific. Most of these Christian refugees were Copts, members of a Christian community living in Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan. There is a small Coptic community in Hungary. They have a church with a membership of 100-110 families. This small community hasn’t noticed a sudden upsurge in the number of Copts living in Budapest. According to the leader of the group, the few newcomers “are businessmen who have permission to live in Hungary but who don’t live in the country on a permanent basis. They come and go in Europe and the world.”
When journalists wanted more information from Balog’s ministry, they were told that everything connected to this case is top secret for the protection of the individuals involved. That excuse was feeble. After all, the reporters from 444 weren’t interested in the names or addresses of these people. They simply wanted to know whether the figures Balog provided were accurate.
In addition to the reasons for the mysterious secrecy, other questions come to mind. There are strict rules and regulations concerning the granting of citizenship. The applicant must have lived in Hungary for at least eight years, must take a language examination, and has to show some knowledge of the country’s history and current political system. There is, however, one important exception to these rules: if the country has an “important national interest” in granting speedy citizenship to individuals. One of the most common such exceptions occurs in the case of athletes competing in the Olympics or at some other international sports event. Lately, foreign nationals who purchase 300,000 euros worth of Hungarian bonds also fall into that expedited category.
A week ago Zoltán Balog gave an interview to Antónia Mészáros of ATV, who barraged him with all sorts of questions that Balog couldn’t answer satisfactorily. There were gaping holes between his earlier story and the one he told in his interview. We could now learn that these new Christian citizens came not only from Egypt and Iraq but from all over the Middle East, including Pakistan.
A few days ago mandiner.hu, a right-of-center internet site, published a story in which András Stumpf claimed, based on documentary evidence, that in the last five years 573 non-Hungarians have received Hungarian citizenship, among them 216 Coptic Christians. Where are they? Why can’t we find them? Stumpf’s answer is that they have since left Hungary and moved on to other more prosperous countries. Just like all those refugees who went through the registration process in recent months and by now are somewhere in Germany or Sweden. Stumpf further claimed that Balog was not precise because he included 1,133 people who had received permission to stay in Hungary temporarily and 841 who had received permission to live in Hungary. All in all, however, Stumpf said, the figures Balog cited were more or less correct.
But the story doesn’t end here because Tímea Szabó, co-chair of Párbeszéd Magyarországért (PM), as a member of parliament requested the exact figures from Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, who by law had to answer her. Semjén is in charge of matters related to citizenship. The figures he provided were the number of people who had been granted expedited citizenship between January 1, 2008 and June 2015. During this period 263 people received such Hungarian citizenship, a number that includes athletes. Of these, 198 were Egyptian.
Of course, the bitter truth that Balog inflated the citizenship numbers had to be covered up somehow. And thus Semjén’s data included all sorts of other categories beyond the actual number of new citizens. He must have realized that the careful reader would discover the discrepancies, so he ended his letter by saying: “On the basis of all these data we can state that Mr. Zoltán Balog’s statement was correct because those people who have received permission to settle in the country ‘are on the road toward’ the acquisition of citizenship.”
One misrepresentation leads to another and, in Balog’s case, to embarrassment. At least I sensed a certain amount of discomfiture during his interview. Others have no compunctions whatsoever. By now perhaps even the majority of Hungarian society is at a point that they don’t believe a word they hear from members of the administration. That is a very serious loss of trust in the country’s leaders.